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What separates a great children’s movie from an average one? A great children’s movie respects the intelligence of its young viewers and tells a story with fully developed characters – the kind of story that transcends age demographics. And when I attended an advance screening for Kubo and the Two Strings in Los Angeles last month, it was quickly apparent that it was a great movie, period.
Kubo follows the story of its young title character (Voiced by Art Parkinson), a boy living in a fantastical Japan with his ailing mother. Using a magical shamisen, Kubo can bring origami to life by playing music, keeping his fellow townspeople enthralled with exciting stories told through his origami creations. Kubo’s mother warns him to beware of his evil grandfather and sisters, who took Kubo’s eye when he was a baby and will use dark magic to take his other eye if he should ever stay outside past nightfall. Kubo’s father, a brave samurai warrior, died protecting his infant son from these evil forces.
As Kubo’s mother slowly loses touch with reality, he begins to question these incredible stories about his past. One fateful evening, he ignores the setting sun and has his world thrown into chaos as all of his mother’s stories start to come true. Kubo’s mother uses her own magic to transport him far away from the danger and bring to life a monkey amulet, who becomes Kubo’s guide and protector (Voiced by Charlize Theron). Monkey informs Kubo that they must embark on a quest to find his father’s suit of armor – the only thing that can help him defeat his evil family. Along the way, they meet kindhearted, goofy Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a former samurai who was cursed and turned into a beetle/man hybrid. The trio must fight danger and demons at every step as they try to unravel the secrets of Kubo’s past and find the armor before it’s too late.
There are so many things that stand out about Kubo. Visually, the film is stunning – animated with unbelievable precision using stop-motion puppets, LAIKA Studios achieved a number of notable milestones in the production of this film, creating both the largest stop-motion puppet ever made with a 16-foot skeleton monster, as well as the smallest ever made out of origami. It’s simply incredible to watch – but it’s not a film that is just flash and effects, because the story and characters contain real emotional depth.
What impressed me about Kubo was its willingness to honestly discuss the topics of death and grief. The story is never sugarcoated and has an approach and nuance that is hard to find in a film made for adults, never mind a “Kiddie” movie. As someone who lost a parent as a teenager, Kubo struck a chord with me (Pun fully intended). I will readily admit that I wept several times through the movie – in fact, I cried again the next day in my hotel room just thinking about the story as I prepared my interview questions for the cast. The film is both heartbreaking and beautiful, from the way it handles loss to the way Kubo ultimately faces his grandfather.
A good story stays with you, and I can absolutely say that about this movie. Action-packed, funny, and emotional, Kubo and the Two Strings wows with its breathtaking animation and heart.
Kubo and the Two Strings comes to theaters this Friday, August 19th.